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The Printing Press



In this section we will follow the transition from crafting books and manuscripts solely by hand to the development of printing techniques involving movable metal type, which eventually led to the mass production and wide dissemination of books; thus paving the way to the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe and North America. This transition was not a single phase process, but one that underwent interim stages, during which output such as the beautiful incunabula books of the early Renaissance were created throughout Europe.

Incunabula from Germany. Late 15th century.

An incunabulum is a book, single sheet, or image that was printed — not handwritten — before the year 1501 in Europe. These are usually very rare and fragile items whose nature can only be verified by experts. The origin of the word is the Latin incunabula for "swaddling clothes", used by extension for the infancy or early stages of something. The first recorded use of incunabula as a printing term is in a pamphlet by Bernard von Mallinckrodt, "Of the rise and progress of the typographic art", published in Cologne in 1639, which includes the phrase prima typographicae incunabula, "the first infancy of printing." The term came to denote the printed books themselves starting from the late 17th century.

Incunabula from Italy. End of 15th century.

There are two types of incunabula: the xylographic (made from a single carved or sculpted block for each page) and the typographic (made with movable type on a printing press in the style of Johann Gutenberg). Many authors reserve the term incunabulum for the typographic ones only. The end date for identifying a book as an incunabulum is convenient, but was chosen arbitrarily. It does not reflect any notable developments in the printing process around the year 1500.

Incunabula from France. End of 15th century.

Incunabula usually refers to the earliest printed books, completed at a time when some books were still being hand-copied. The gradual spread of printing ensured that there was great variety in the texts chosen for printing and the styles in which they appeared. Many early typefaces were modeled on local forms of writing or derived from the various European forms of Gothic script, but there were also some derived from documentary scripts (such as most of Caxton's types), and, particularly in Italy, types modeled on humanistic hands. These humanistic typefaces are often used today, barely modified, in digital form.


Printers tended to congregate in urban centres where there were scholars, ecclesiastics, lawyers, nobles and professionals who formed their major customer-base. Standard works in Latin inherited from the medieval tradition formed the bulk of the earliest printing, but as books became cheaper, works in the various vernaculars (or translations of standard works) began to appear. Famous incunabula include the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 and the Liber Chronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, printed by Anton Koberger in 1493. Other well-known incunabula printers were Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg, Günther Zainer of Augsburg, Johann Mentelin of Strasbourg and William Caxton of Bruges and London.

The design of the books shows all the characteristics of a transitional period: Although they still resemble their medieval counterparts where ornamentation, initials and bordering are concerned they are certainly no longer as dark and dense as the medieval illuminated manuscripts: Already we see a move towards whiter, lighter pages. Some of this can also be attributed to the import of paper manufacturing technologies which lessened the cost of book production. While columns were already present during earlier times, during the incunabula book designers far greater use of them for design purposes. The gridding which set type necessitated technologically caused the books to adhere to a grid system, yet another novelty in design.

Further reading and images



The word paper comes from the ancient Egyptian writing material called papyrus, which was woven from papyrus plants. Papyrus was produced as early as 3000 BC in Egypt, and in ancient Greece and Rome. Further north, parchment or vellum, made of processed sheepskin or calfskin, replaced papyrus, as the papyrus plant requires subtropical conditions to grow. In China, documents were ordinarily written on bamboo, making them very heavy and awkward to transport. Silk was sometimes used, but was normally too expensive to consider. Indeed, most of the above materials were rare and costly.


Some historians speculate that paper was the key element in global cultural advancement. According to this theory, Chinese culture was less developed than the West in ancient times prior to the Han Dynasty because bamboo, while abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus; Chinese culture advanced during the Han Dynasty and preceding centuries due to the invention of paper; and Europe advanced during the Renaissance due to the introduction of paper and the printing press.


Paper remained a luxury item through the centuries, until the advent of steam-driven paper making machines in the 19th century, which could make paper with fibres from wood pulp. Although older machines predated it, the Fourdrinier paper making machine became the basis for most modern papermaking. Together with the invention of the practical fountain pen and the mass produced pencil of the same period, and in conjunction with the advent of the steam driven rotary printing press, wood based paper caused a major transformation of the 19th century economy and society in industrialized countries. Before this era a book or a newspaper was a rare luxury object and illiteracy was normal. With the gradual introduction of cheap paper, schoolbooks, fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers became slowly available to nearly all the members of an industrial society. Cheap wood based paper also meant that keeping personal diaries or writing letters ceased to be reserved to a privileged few. The office worker or the white-collar worker was slowly born of this transformation, which can be considered as a part of the industrial revolution.


During the incunabula period, Europeans used rags to make paper by the following method: the rags were cut into small pieces; fermented; ground by watermill; and scooped into a mould to dry. Therefore handmade paper does not have a uniform thickness; it varies in thickness according to the mesh of the mould. If held against the light, the thinner part of handmade paper appears brighter, and it is possible to detect thick lines spaced several centimeters apart, as well as thin lines closely spaced crossing the thick lines at a right angle. The thick lines are referred to as the "chain line" and the thin lines the "wire line."

Further reading and images


The Gutenberg Printing Press


Johannes Gutenberg (1398 – 1468) was a German goldsmith and inventor who achieved fame for his invention of the technology of printing with moveable type pieces during 1447. Gutenberg has often been credited as being the most influential and important person of all times, with his invention occupying similar status. 


The Gutenberg Bible. 1455.


Moveable Type

Block printing, whereby individual sheets of paper were pressed into wooden blocks with the text and illustrations carved into them, was first recorded in Chinese history, and was in use in East Asia long before Gutenberg. By the 12th and 13th centuries, many Chinese libraries contained tens of thousands of printed books. The Chinese and Koreans knew about moveable metal type at the time, but because of the complexity of the movable type printing it was not as widely used as in Renaissance Europe.

Movable type (below) and typesetters box (above).

Metal movable type

It is not clear whether Gutenberg knew of these existing techniques, or invented them independently, although the former is considered unlikely because of the substantial differences in technique. Some also claim that the Dutchman Laurens Janszoon Coster was the first European to invent movable type.

Gutenberg certainly introduced efficient methods into book production, leading to a boom in the production of texts in Europe — in large part, owing to the popularity of the Gutenberg Bibles, the first mass-produced work, starting on February 23, 1455. Even so, Gutenberg was a poor businessman, and made little money from his printing system.

Gutenberg began experimenting with metal typography after he had moved from his native town of Mainz to Strasbourg (then in Germany, now France) around 1430. Knowing that wood-block type involved a great deal of time and expense to reproduce, because it had to be hand-carved, Gutenberg concluded that metal type could be reproduced much more quickly once a single mould had been fashioned.

In 1455, Gutenberg demonstrated the power of the printing press by selling copies of a two-volume Bible (Biblia Sacra) for 300 florins each. This was the equivalent of approximately three years' wages for an average clerk, but it was significantly cheaper than a handwritten Bible that could take a single monk 20 years to transcribe. The one copy of the Biblia Sacra dated 1455 went to Paris, and was dated by the binder. (View the Gutenberg Bible).


The Korean Jikji: Oldest movable type publication.1377.

The Gutenberg Bibles surviving today are sometimes called the oldest surviving books printed with movable type — although actually, the oldest such surviving book is the Jikji, published in Korea in 1377. However, it is still notable, in that the print technology that produced the Gutenberg Bible marks the beginning of a cultural revolution unlike any that followed the development of print culture in Asia. The Gutenberg Bible lacks many print features that modern readers are accustomed to, such as pagination, word spacing, indentations, and paragraph breaks.

Further reading and images


The Golden Canon of Page Construction


Raúl Rosarivo, was the first to analyze Renaissance books in his "Typographical Divine Proportion", first published in 1947, with the help of compass and ruler and concluded that Gutenberg applied the golden canon of page construction to his work. His work and assertion that Gutenberg used the "golden number" or "secret number" to establish the harmonic relationships between the diverse parts of a work, was analyzed by experts at the Gutenberg Museum and re-published in the Gutenberg Jahrbuch, its official magazine. Historian John Man points out that Gutenberg's Bible's page was based on the golden section shape, based on the irrational number 0.618.... (a ratio of 5:8) and that the printed area also had that shape.

Building on Rosarivo's work, contemporary experts in book design such as Jan Tschichold and Richard Hendel, assert as well that the page proportion of the golden section (21:34), has been used in book design, in manuscripts, and incunabula, mostly in those produced between 1550 and 1770. Hendel writes that since Gutenberg's time, books have been most often printed in an upright position, that comform losely, if not precisely, to the golden ratio.

Albrecht Duerer

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was a painter, printmaker, and theorist of the German Renaissance. Born in Nuremberg, Dürer established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties, due to his high-quality woodcut prints. He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, and from 1512 he was patronized by emperor Maximilian I.


His vast body of work includes engravings, his preferred technique in his later prints, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours and books. The woodcuts, such as the Apocalypse series (1498), retain a more Gothic flavour than the rest of his work. His well-known engravings include the Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) and Melencolia I (1514), which has been the subject of extensive analysis and interpretation. His watercolours also mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.

Duerer's introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian artists and German humanists, has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions.

Pages from Duerer's book on Measurement (Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt or Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Ruler).

Dürer's work on geometry is called the Four Books on Measurement (Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt or Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Ruler). In this book Dürer also theorizes upon typography, as can be seen in the pages shown in the gallery above.

The first book focuses on linear geometry. Dürer's geometric constructions include helices, conchoids and epicycloids. He also draws on Apollonius, and Johannes Werner's 'Libellus super viginti duobus elementis conicis' of 1522. The second book moves onto two dimensional geometry, i.e. the construction of regular polygons. Here Dürer favours the methods of Ptolemy over Euclid. The third book applies these principles of geometry to architecture, engineering and typography.

In architecture Dürer cites Vitruvius but elaborates his own classical designs and columns. In typography, Duerer depicts the geometric construction of the Latin alphabet, relying on Italian precedent. However, his construction of the Gothic alphabet is based upon an entirely different modular system. The fourth book completes the progression of the first and second by moving to three-dimensional forms and the construction of polyhedra. Here Duerer discusses the five Platonic solids, as well as seven Archimedean semi-regular solids, as well as several of his own invention.

In all these, Dürer shows the objects as nets. Finally, Dürer discusses the Delian Problem and moves on to the 'construzione legittima', a method of depicting a cube in two dimensions through linear perspective. It was in Bologna that Dürer was taught the principles of linear perspective, and evidently became familiar with the 'costruzione legittima' in a written description of these principles found only, at this time, in the unpublished treatise of Piero della Francesca. He was also familiar with the 'abbreviated construction' as described by Alberti and the geometrical construction of shadows, a technique of Leonardo da Vinci. Although Dürer made no innovations in these areas, he is notable as the first Northern European to treat matters of visual representation in a scientific way, and with understanding of Euclidean principles. In addition to these geometrical constructions, Dürer discusses in this last book of Underweysung der Messung an assortment of mechanisms for drawing in perspective from models and provides woodcut illustrations of these methods that are often reproduced in discussions of perspective.


Dürer trained himself in the difficult art of using the burin to make engravings. It is possible he had begun learning this skill during his early training with his father, as it was also an essential skill of the goldsmith. He was soon producing some spectacular and original images, with highly detailed landscape backgrounds and animals.

An important part of Dürer's output were prints, both as woodcuts and as engravings. Since, unlike paintings and sculpture, prints are highly portable which accounts for how these pieces got disseminated widely and made Dürer famous throughout the main artistic centers of Europe within a very few years. Printmaking techniques are also, of course, at the core of incunabula books, and therefore Dürer's work exerted considerable influence over the book industry of the 15th century.

His most widely sold works in the first years of his workshop in Nuremberg were his woodcut prints, mostly of a religious nature, but secular as well - as is the case in the rhinoceros print above. These were larger and more finely cut than the great majority of German woodcuts hitherto, and far more complex and balanced in composition.


A drawing of the rhinoceros was used as a template for a woodcut block, which was then inked to make multiple prints of Dürer's design, including the image on the cover. However, this image is a work of imagination rather than a representation of reality, because Dürer never had the opportunity to examine the rhinoceros himself.

It is now thought unlikely that Duerer cut any of the woodblocks himself; this task would have been performed by a specialist craftsman. However, his training in Wolgemut's studio, which made many carved and painted altarpieces and both designed and cut woodblocks for woodcut, evidently gave him great understanding of what the technique could be made to produce, and how to work with block cutters. Duerer either drew his design directly onto the woodblock itself, or glued a paper drawing to the block. Either way, his drawings were destroyed during the cutting of the block.

Engraving, the other main technique, worked on the reverse principle to woodcuts in that it was not elevated areas of the printing surface that were inked but the grooves. The lines removed from the copper plate with a cutter would appear black in the prints. The plate was engraved by the artist himself, a technique which would have been familiar to Dürer from. his time spent as a goldsmith in his father's workshop. The engraved plate was then inked and wiped, leaving the ink in the grooves, and it was ready for printing.

Dürer's early prints were strongly influenced by the work of two earlier German printmakers. Martin Schongauer and the Master of the Housebook. Later the three main specialities of Dürer's workshop were paintings, prints, and to a lesser extent designs for stained glass. Dürer found that panel paintings were not very profitable and he devoted much of his time to prints. Dürer also experimented with other printmaking techniques, including drypoint which had been used by the Master of the Housebook, as well as etching on iron plates.

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